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Red Wasp AFLTA District III  12-8-08

By Freddie A. Bowles
Posted from Fayetteville, Arkansas

What do you get when you put together ninety-five foreign language teachers? You get six hours of professional development, authentic ethnic food, incredible presentations, camaraderie, and even a little flamenco dancing.

Opening Minds to the World.

On Friday, November 14, the Arkansas Foreign Language Teachers Association District III conference organizers, Anna Beaulieu and Celine Simpson, both French teachers extraordinaire, joined me in hosting a full day of food, fun, and fellowship at the Jones Center for Families in Springdale. Greeting colleagues from schools throughout the region, we shared ideas, activities, and strategies to promote student engagement and learning under the theme, Opening Minds to the World through Languages.

It’s not often that teachers of French, German, Latin, and Spanish have the opportunity to get together at a local conference focused solely on providing presentations on the teaching of foreign languages. Area schools offer a couple of professional development hours for their language faculty before the school year begins, and the Educational Cooperative may have some sessions for teachers during the calendar year, but unless teachers attend the state conference in the spring or the national conference in the fall, foreign language teachers are most often left with attending more general pedagogical professional development sessions.

Immersion in French, German, Spanish.

To address this deficiency, the District III conference at Springdale provided teachers the opportunity to acquire six hours of professional development, including an immersion session in one of the target languages of French, German, and Spanish.

Last year, 2007, the executive board of our state language organization, the Arkansas Foreign Language Teachers Association (AFLTA), voted to discontinue the state fall conference so that Arkansas’ five smaller districts could hold their own fall meetings. The board determined that local fall conferences would provide more assessable professional development opportunities and promote collaboration and community building at the grassroots level.

At the same time, I was asked to take over as Chair of District III, a thirty-three county region extending north to Bentonville, southwest to Russellville, and east to Harrison. That’s a lot of schools, folks, and a lot of foreign language teachers. We held our first fall conference at the University of Arkansas Fort Smith last year with eighty-two participants.

Passion and Scope.

Our growth from eighty-two to ninety-five participants bodes well for foreign language education in our region. The teachers, students, and professors who committed to a day of sharing their passion for teaching also reflect the scope of language education in our area. Many of these teachers spend the day teaching more than one language, so the attendance reflected their obligations with four ESL, twenty-one French, nine German, one Latin, sixty-three Spanish, and three teacher educators present.

Usually I’m writing a report from a conference that I attend, but this time, I’m on the other side as conference organizer. Even though I presented, as did Anna and Celine, we didn’t have a chance to participate wholly as a conference attendee. We orchestrated the day like stage managers, making sure all the props, costumes, settings, and characters were in place for each hour of the conference.

From May to November.

Anna, Celine, and I began planning this year’s conference in May. A date and location was our first prerogative. Once we determined time and place, we sent out requests for proposals. We also chose our keynote speaker. This is textbook adoption year for foreign language, so Anna contacted several book publishers and asked them to attend and present their products.

In the meantime, we began to collect pre-registrations and solicit donations for conference folders, presenter gifts, and door prizes. By October we were choosing the breakfast and luncheon menus and meeting almost every week before the conference date, November 14. Thanks to our public school and university educators, we were able to offer eight concurrent sessions in addition to the keynote speaker and a session presented by the four publisher representatives.

Aware that District III teachers work tirelessly and creatively to engage students in the creative process of learning another language, the tireless trio (that would be Anna, Celine, and I) wanted to plan a memorable day to honor our colleagues and peers.

Crepes, Sopes, Salsa, Pastries, Stollen.

You know it’s true that good food makes a good mood, so Celine invited Fred, one of her French acquaintances, to make sweet and savory crepes as part of our “continental” breakfast. Anna contacted the Jones Center café chef to prepare an authentic Mexican meal for lunch, consisting of “sopes,” a traditional open-faced sandwich with layers of refried beans, salsa, cheese, shredded chicken or pork, and sour crème on a thick base of fried masa (cornmeal); homemade salsa with chips, refried beans, rice, and salad for the entrée; with a fruit plate, chocolate pudding, and tapioca for dessert. At a local pandería, I found authentic Mexican, Salvadorian, and Puerto Rican pastries for the Spanish immersion session. I also stopped by the local German store, Aldi’s, to pick up some stollen (German fruit cake) for the German immersion sessions.

We also decided to give our presenters an appreciation gift bag and award door prizes during lunch. Best of all, several of our colleagues took the time to send in proposals so that we could offer eight concurrent sessions, the most important aspect of a conference.

In Our Eyes, She's a Legend.

The conference opened with a rousing address
by the keynote speaker, a legendary educator whose influence on the participants was profound and far reaching.  During her tenure at the University of Arkansas, Dr. Margaret Clark had taught French or foreign language methods to over one-third of the conference participants!   Dr. Clark, Associate Professor Emerita, began her career as a high school French teacher, eventually joining the UA foreign language department. She also taught the methods course for foreign languages and the ESL (English as a Second Language) courses for the College of Education. In addition to her teaching obligations, Dr. Clark participated in state and national foreign language organizations, several professional educational organizations, and published her research findings.

Dr. Clark’s presentation focused on teaching culture, one of the five “Cs” of learning a foreign language — Communication, Culture, Connections, Comparisons, and Community. To honor this remarkable, energetic, and committed advocate of language learning, we collected over one hundred fifty dollars for the state Endowment Fund, which provides travel stipends to members seeking professional development at regional and national conferences.

Publishers Present their Textbooks.

Our participants were also fortunate to have four publishers agree to co-present their products in the second session, “Adopting a Textbook for a Foreign Language Classroom.” Representatives from Holt McDougal, McGraw-Hill, Pearson/Prentice Hall, and EMC Publishing discussed their textbooks and ancillary products.  They also distributed samples to the audience.

After a short break, the first concurrent sessions began. Anna presented “Storytime! Using Children’s Books to Elicit the Target Language.” I can attest to the engagement of this session because one of my interns used Anna’s ideas in her classroom for a lesson I observed last week.

Tam Stassen and Michelle Gayon co-presented the other session, “TPRS: Teaching Fluency.” This methodology, Total Physical Response Storytelling, promotes the first “C," Communication, by focusing on listening and speaking, two skills that keep students engaged.

Participants left the rooms discussing the sessions and how they could use the methods and ideas in their own classes, a sure sign of success for the conference.

The Plunge into National Boards.

After a leisurely lunch and short business meeting, the afternoon sessions began with Michelle Moore’s presentation, “National Boards: Taking the Plunge,” an explanation of how teachers can become National Board Certified. The Arkansas Department of Education encourages the candidates by offering a $5,000 salary supplement to those who earn the certification.

At the same time, Vance Pitman took the stage with his technology presentation, “Discussion Boards and Podcasts: Enhancing the Foreign Language Classroom.” Twenty-first century students are highly adept at using technology in their personal lives, so why not take this skill and direct it to engage our students in the classroom? Vance’s timely presentation convinced many teachers to make the effort.

To Inspire the Poet in Each of Us.

The fifth hour of professional development brought me to the front of the classroom where I presented “A Way with Words: Using Poetry in the Foreign Language Classroom.” I’ve discovered over the years that students like to write about themselves, so I shared my techniques for using poetic forms as a way to get students to use the target language to write about themselves. In the weeks following the conference, I heard from a couple of teachers who’ve already used some of the forms.

Across the hall, Kristen Novotny shared her school district’s model for assessing, placing, and teaching students whose first language is Spanish. Many schools now offer SNS (Spanish for Native Speakers) classes, but placement is a challenging issue for this diversely prepared group of students. Kristen’s presentation, “Spanish for Native Speakers: Program Structure and Frameworks,” led the participants through her district’s endeavors to prepare students for learning content in their first language while improving their English skills at the same time.

We took a short break before the last hour of professional development, three concurrent sessions in the target languages of French, German, and Spanish.

The Cinema, Taos, and Flamenco.

Celine Simpson and Cindy King guided French teachers into the world of cinema with their presentation, “French Films in the Foreign Language Classroom.” Students are avid movie fans, so connecting their enthusiasm for cinema to an authentic film grabs their attention and also satisfies the standards and frameworks for learning another language.

Jennifer Hoyer and her student, Annie Gordon, recapped their summer at Die Deutsche Sommerschule in Taos, New Mexico, where German students, teachers, and scholars convene for a month of linguistic and cultural immersion. Jennifer and Annie supplemented their presentation, “Taos Summer Immersion Program: Professional Development and Proficiency,” with realia from the school and their personal collections.

Mim Heinrichs closed out the Spanish immersion with a combination of culture and performance as she had every Spanish teacher dancing the flamenco during her presentation: “Flamenco Dance: Experience the Culture!” Mim showed the true flare and drama of this exquisite dance form with her finale performance in traditional flamenco attire.

Farewell, Thank You, Let's Do It Again.

And just like that, the conference was over. Teachers lined up to receive signatures on their professional development sheets, turn in their conference evaluation, and collect their certificate of attendance. Anna, Celine, and I were busy saying our farewells and expressing appreciation to everyone who attended. A few lingered behind to help us pack up our signs, computers, and paperwork. We made a last-minute check of all the rooms, then walked out of the Jones Center, the day fading into sunset, into a deep purple and pink, cloud-studded sky.

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